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The above title is all I managed to write of this column last week. The details of what caused this rare writer’s block—more accurately just a total lack of interest in any writing—I just can’t reveal now, for reasons largely based around shame and embarrassment. I firmly believe in being honest and open in my writing and my life, but there are consequences to that, and I hope it’s a sign of some growth that I recognize some of those possible consequences ahead of time here and just clam up.
I’m wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt with a screen-printed image of a rock show stage and cosmic backdrop that for all I know was adapted from a 1973 Yes concert, and the seams are stitched inside-out, which seems sort of cool right now but I can easily see will seem stupid in just a year or two, like most of the clothes we wear. As I wrote about in the last column, it’s really a comfort to know that your opinions, your tastes, may very well change. And also the depth of your feeling about an event in your life will start to lighten and diminish in time. Anyway…have I mentioned how much I love Kit Kats? Yum.
In a better world, this volume would not only have been in print for a decade, it would be just the first in a series of collections of the ongoing BWS: Storyteller series. Windsor-Smith’s Introduction would have been a proud, satisfied look back at the genesis of this serial, perhaps with commentary about how this or that character had evolved and how seeds from the current storyline were planted within these early tales.
But that wasn’t to be. Though original publisher Dark Horse Comics had success with other acclaimed creators like Frank Miller and Mike Mignola, the relationship with Windsor-Smith deteriorated quickly due to his frustration with their perfunctory marketing efforts for his ambitious, expensive book, and the series ended after only nine issues.
Fortunately, Fantagraphics gave this material a home, and The Freebooters is the second of three planned hardcover collections of Storyteller material after Young Gods. The book contains the stories from the nine issues as well as material planned through the unpublished issues #10-13, a wealth of sketches and other art, and a lengthy essay about the Windsor-Smith’s creative challenges and the struggle to be heard by his publisher.
The story involves a young man named Aran, who has seen a vision about the return of an evil being named Ammon-Gra, and so he journeys to the city of Shahariza to enlist the aid of the great warrior, Axus, who originally felled Ammon-Gra. Those who remember Windsor-Smith’s youthful but increasingly accomplished work for Marvel Comics on Conan the Barbarian will no doubt be dazzled by the lush artwork and vibrant, painterly coloring, but they and everyone else will be amused to find The Freebooters essentially a deconstruction of the sword and sorcery genre. You see, Axus is fat, gone to seed. The barbarian as former quarterback, now drinking and belching his way through stories about his glory days. It’s not really a parody, though, because there really is a threat. It’s more like one of those stories where the has-been has to be inspired by the young buck to dig deep and find that spark he used to have, so he can save the day. Unfortunately, not knowing just how finite his series would be, Windsor-Smith spends a lot of time in developing his supporting cast, and the big battle never happens. But what is here is so enjoyable it doesn’t matter too much. There are plenty of laughs, some subtly developing romance for Aran and plenty of convincing scenes of Axus starting to realize that he’s going to have to make some changes in his life. And in case you thought it was all talk and jokes, Windsor-Smith’s sequence of the younger Axus seemingly destroying Ammon-Gra for the first time is absolutely breath-taking, the equal of anything he did in Conan.
The background material finds Windsor-Smith as angry as he was in the material for Young Gods, but he explains that he hopes the publication of this work acts as an exorcism of his resentment towards his former publisher. Whether it does or not, there is little indication he will return to this material again, which is a real shame. But as the lengthy, aborted first attempt at Chapter One reprinted here shows, Windsor-Smith is a true artist, grappling with how to do the best work he can. There’s nothing wrong with that first attempt—it’s better than what 90% of comics creators would come up with—but more than most, Windsor-Smith understands that sometimes good work has to be abandoned in order to produce the great work. Perhaps this very good work, unfinished, will lead to the best work of his career.
Serenity Vol. 1: Bad Girl in Town
This book is the first salvo in Barbour’s and RealBuzz Studio’s war for the teen girl’s soul, an “inspirational manga” about a blue-haired troublemaker getting a new chance in a new high school filled with relentlessly positive, mature, focused Christian teens hell-bent (sorry) on Serenity’s salvation. Serenity is foul-mouthed, combative, a thief, and a slut, but this only makes her new classmates want to help her even more.
I’ll confess right now that any Christian manga would probably have to be From Hell (sorry again) quality for me to give it an enthusiastic review. I don’t care for many American attempts at manga art stylings (Kwon, a Rutgers graduate, has a flat, generic style) and more importantly, I’m uneasy about pushing any religion on impressionable youth. From the first few pages, I knew I would have no ethical quandaries here, though, because the book just isn’t good.
The trouble with pushing stuff that’s “good for you” is that it also has to be good. My kids take an anti-allergy syrup with a “fun fruit flavor” that makes them shudder. I’m reminded of Rod McKuen’s chestnut, “the medium is the message” here, because the creators seem to think that all you need is a wretched sinner surrounded by wholesome kids and you’ve got yourself a good story. But no, Serenity is a cipher who is ironically still the most appealing character because at least she has some personality traits. The prayer group kids around her have nothing, especially not the doubts and uncertainties and temptations that most teens have. Just because it’s Christian, does that mean the school has no cliques, no grudges, no romantic rivalries? There is a brief moment of conflict where one of the students wants to give up on Serenity, but she’s talked back into it on the next page, since God doesn’t give up on us, and there appears to be a bit of jealousy on one girl’s part when her boyfriend pays attention to Serenity, but he’s so dull and one-dimensional it’s hard to really consider this a love triangle. Dixon tries the rarely-successful trick to be hip with the kids by making up scads of made-up slang (“frados,” “scoochie”) but forgets or is unable to create a rich enough story or characters to carry his many messages. When not quoting Scripture, the kids have nothing to talk about, nothing to distinguish themselves from each other or to approximate human beings and not Biblebots. And some of the messages, like divorce never being acceptable, or that listening to empowering talk from an unmarried, Liberal, dykey teacher like Ms. Baxter is a temptation to lesbian Hell, are honestly rather frightening. Ironically, Baxter is the only character to actually listen to, and encourage, Serenity, but since Dixon’s zeal far outweighs his confidence in his writing, he has to use a footnote to “not the spelling” when Baxter says “womyn”, in case there was a danger readers might see her as sympathetic. It’s later revealed that, off-panel, Baxter gave Serenity some condoms.
To actually be inspirational, art must somehow relate to someone’s life or how they see the world, and it must fire the imagination. The Christian-themed The Lord of the Rings has enthralled millions since its publication, and many of those millions are not Christian or have no idea the themes are Christian at all. Likewise with the more overtly Christian The Chronicles of Narnia. But Tolkien and Lewis were authors--artists--who drew from their beliefs to create new tales on enchantment--art. If the talent isn’t there, it’s just a tract, and Serenity isn’t far from that. Serenity’s guilt and eventual return of some money she stole from a donation jar at the school is handled pretty well at the end, but ultimately it’s not enough to save the book.
Hutch Owen: Unmarketable
I remember no less an authority than Tom Spurgeon recommending this book a year ago, but despite liking the first Owen collection, it took a Top Shelf fire sale recently to remind me to get this one. Anyway, let’s get to it: this is a goddamn terrific book.
For those new to the character, Hutch Owen is a willfully unemployed philosopher and soul rebel with fire in his belly and poetry in his heart. He’s plug-ugly and blunt but never mean or petty, and always has the social needs of his friends and larger humanity in mind. In many of his stories, simple goals like trying to find a good, free cup of coffee take absurd, yet almost plausible turns, and Owen butts up against, and almost subverts, our corporate-controlled culture.
The first story, “Aristotle,” finds Hutch battling himself, as he discovers a way to enter the working life on his own terms (wearing a caf mascot costume gives him time to think), yet it all goes awry as his old nemesis Worner hires the disguised Hutch to pick his free-associating brain for ways to market a new iced coffee beverage. The scene with Worner ordering his execs to come up with fifty bad ideas actually has a warped kind of sense to it. Better yet is the confrontation between Hutch and creative camp director Jackass Onassis about their different perspectives on personal freedom. Onassis makes tons of money berating execs, giving him the means to travel all over the world and experience as much culture as he can, while Hutch’s refusal to slave for a buck arguably limits his escape routes and circle of influence. It’s a fascinating argument, and a tribute to Hart’s abilities that the story gains in power by not having one answer forced on the reader.
“Public Relations” is the longest story in the book, the only one given a two-color process, and it’s in the middle: obviously Hart knows what a motherfucker it is. While “Aristotle” was sharp, funny, and questioning, this one amps the anger up 100% and adds a truly haunting quality. We find Worner driving golf balls from the top of his building, where they unerringly land in a homeless man’s cup—an odd but memorable detail. Then we find that other golf balls are striking down homeless left and right, with simply drawn but-all-the-more-effective-for-it ghosts emerging from their dying bodies. Symbolism and the supernatural seems to be new but exciting areas for Hart, but while they add much to the story, the foundation is built on the usual corporate satire. In this case, Hutch ends up asked to help finalize a post-9/11 building proposal that was predicated on cruel inanities like “Real for Real People” and “After 9/11, We’re All Homeless”. The humor turns into sadness, confusion, and an anger less directed than usual for Hart. It’s an honest, expression of his and pretty much everyone in this country’s emotions of that time, and as Hutch predicts, it wasn’t long before we were back to bitching.
The remaining stories are much shorter, culled from anthologies and online, and frankly, they feel like filler. Other than “Attacked, Attacked, Attacking,” which is another short burst of 9/11 anguish, none of the stories register. Despite this, the quality of the aforementioned long-form stories is so high the book is still highly recommended.
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